More than two months after U.S. combat troops formally withdrew from Afghanistan, ending a disastrous and failed 20-year war, one might expect that the war drums of U.S. foreign policy commentators would be getting a rest. Instead, a new potential target has been identified: a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
Ever since the Communists seized control of China in 1949 and the Nationalist government, led by Chiang-Kai-shek, fled across the Taiwan Straits, China has repeatedly called for the reunification of Taiwan and China. These demands have generally emphasized a desire for “peaceful reunification,” but Beijing has also warned that a Taiwanese declaration of independence would lead to war.
The United States has long played a key role in the territorial dispute. It initially signed a bilateral defense agreement with Taiwan in 1954 and over the years supplied the island with armaments. Even after recognizing the Chinese Communist government in Beijing in 1979, the U.S. has adhered to position of “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to the question of an American response to a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
But today, with U.S.-Chinese relations at one of the lowest points in recent memory—and as the Chinese military takes increasingly provocative military actions toward Taiwan—the fears of war have increased. So, too, have the calls for the U.S. to ratchet up its efforts to defend Taiwan, including the potential use of military force. The flames have been fanned by a host of military figures and foreign policy pundits.
Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of U.S. military forces in the Pacific, got the party started last March when he warned a Senate committee that China could invade Taiwan “in the next six years.”
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, former Trump Defense official Elbridge Colby ramped up the threat-mongering by declaring, “Beijing has made clear it is willing to use force to take Taiwan.… And this isn’t mere talk. The Chinese military has rehearsed amphibious attacks, and commercial satellite imagery shows that China practices large-scale attacks on U.S. forces in the region.” In the Bible of the foreign policy establishment, Foreign Affairs, Orianna Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, warned that “whereas Chinese leaders used to view a military campaign to take the island as a fantasy, now they consider it a real possibility.” Yes, China could invade Taiwan, says the Heritage Foundation. And Taiwan’s top defense official—perhaps not surprisingly—warned recently that China will be able to mount a “full-scale” invasion of Taiwan by 2025.
Some U.S. policymakers have taken these warnings to heart. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton has called for the U.S. to end its policy of “strategic ambiguity” and make clear its willingness to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley warned recently that “if China takes control of Taiwan, Beijing will be emboldened to seize other territories around the globe” and called on the U.S. to increase pressure on China, including a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics scheduled to be held in Beijing.
But how legitimate are these fears? Is the prospect of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan a serious and urgent concern? The answer is “not very.” And it’s a view, ironically, endorsed by the Pentagon.
Earlier this month, the Defense Department released its annual report to Congress on “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.” While the report lays out the ways in which China’s “People’s Liberation Army” is seeking to modernize its forces, the threat to Taiwan of armed invasion is still minimal at best:
Large-scale amphibious invasion is one of the most complicated and difficult military operations, requiring air and maritime superiority, the rapid buildup and sustainment of supplies onshore, and uninterrupted support. An attempt to invade Taiwan would likely strain PRC’s armed forces and invite international intervention. These stresses, combined with the PRC’s combat force attrition and the complexity of urban warfare and counterinsurgency, even assuming a successful landing and breakout, make an amphibious invasion of Taiwan a significant political and military risk.
One might expect that a country intent on launching the largest and most difficult amphibious invasion in history would be making intense preparations. That’s not happening.
As the Pentagon report notes, Chinese naval investments have focused on building up the capacity to launch “regional and eventually global expeditionary missions rather than the large number of landing ship transports and medium landing craft that would be necessary for a large-scale direct beach assault.” The Pentagon also finds that while China is focusing on conducting joint operations that involve forces from the army, navy, and air force, as of present it currently lacks such capabilities.
That the Chinese military enjoys vast military superiority vis-à-vis Taiwan is not in doubt. But that such resources can be used to mount an amphibious assault is something else altogether. The Chinese military last fought a war in 1979 against Vietnam, and the PLA was badly bloodied. That means that the soldiers and officers who make up China’s military today have virtually no direct combat experience.
China’s own media outlets have, according to the Pentagon, noted the PLA’s shortcomings, which include that “commanders cannot (1) judge situations; (2) understand higher authorities’ intentions; (3) make operational decisions; (4) deploy forces; and, (5) manage unexpected situations.” These problems would be challenging enough in a conventional conflict. For a complex invasion of Taiwan, they would render such efforts virtually impossible.
One big reason is that Taiwan is about as inhospitable an environment as can be imagined for an amphibious invasion. Ian Easton, a defense expert who has written extensively about Taiwan defense strategy, wrote earlier this year that the country’s “coastal terrain … is a defender’s dream come true. Taiwan has only 14 small invasion beaches, and they are bordered by cliffs and urban jungles.” Easton also notes that “many of Taiwan’s outer islands bristle with missiles, rockets, and artillery guns. Their granite hills have been honeycombed with tunnels and bunker systems.”
A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would look more like the World War II Marine assaults on the rough and unforgiving terrain of Pacific islands than it would D-Day (which was no walk in the park, either) but against an exponentially more competent and technologically advanced military. Even if somehow China were successful in invading Taiwan and occupying the island, it would then find itself in the position of having to pacify and potentially rebuild an advanced nation of 23 million people (two million of whom are members of the nation’s military reserves).
Putting aside the virtually insurmountable military obstacles, there’s the larger issue of how the U.S. and other nations in the region would respond (in recent weeks, Japanese leaders have made clear their determination to help Taiwan in the wake of Chinese invasion). The U.S. could play a decisive role, even without boots on the ground in Taiwan. For example, American naval and air forces could wreak havoc on Chinese supply lines.
As Rachel Esplin Odell and Eric Heginbotham wrote recently in Foreign Affairs (in response to Skylar Mastro): “To seize control of the island, China would need to keep its fleet off Taiwan’s coast for weeks, creating easy targets for antiship cruise missiles launched from Taiwan or from U.S. bombers, fighter aircraft, and submarines.”
Ultimately, no one knows what the U.S. would do in response to a Chinese attack. In recent months, President Biden has twice publicly stated that the U.S. will defend Taiwan, which rhetorically goes so beyond the long-held policy of “strategic ambiguity” that the White House has been forced to walk back his comments. But even if Biden got too far out on his skis, his misstatements create even further confusion for China about U.S. intentions.
Those who are argue that China could invade Taiwan are assuming that Beijing would willingly initiate a conflict that could lead, potentially, to the involvement of the world’s strongest military, backed by thousands of nuclear weapons. Such assumptions throw the entire notion of deterrence on its head.
Lastly, there are the political and financial costs. If China were to attack Taiwan, it would require the mobilization of millions of its citizens and billions, or even trillions, in spending simply to prepare for war. Success would bring with it an even larger price tag for rebuilding Taiwan and integrating the island into China. Anything other than complete military success and acquiescence by the international community would reap an ill wind for Chinese leaders. Economic isolation; interruption of trade ties that have been essential to China’s economic growth over the past two decades; and a generation, if not more, of mistrust and hostility from the U.S., China’s Asian neighbors, and likely the international community would almost certainly be the result.
A Chinese invasion of Taiwan that was anything but a success would likely leave the nation politically isolated, economically damaged, and reputationally crippled. And ironically, a failed attack could lead to a Taiwanese declaration of independence—one that China would be incapable of stopping. All that, at a time when the Chinese economy is facing a collection of economic headwinds—from an energy crunch and a growing real estate crisis to slowing economic growth.
There are other force options available to China’s leaders. The aforementioned Pentagon report notes the potential for an “Air and Maritime Blockade,” “Limited Force or Coercive Options,” and an “Air and Missile Campaign.” But all of these bring with them similar negative political and economic consequences. China could also ramp up the military provocations that have been increasing since 2020, moves that have included Chinese aircraft repeatedly violating Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone and have refuted the existence of a so-called “median line” in the Taiwan Strait. But these moves should be seen in more straightforward terms: an effort to deter Taiwan from taking further steps toward declaring independence.
Those warning of a Chinese invasion would be wise to consider Xi Jingping’s most recent statements about Taiwan. In Beijing’s readout of the meeting this week between Biden and Xi, it states, in regard to Taiwan, “We have patience and will strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and efforts.”
At the same time, the statement makes clear, “Should the separatist forces for Taiwan independence provoke us, force our hands, or even cross the red line, we will be compelled to take resolute measures.”
As M. Taylor Fravel, a professor of political science and director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, notes, this is consistent with Beijing’s long-standing political-military strategy for Taiwan. “In the simplest terms,” says Fravel, China “seeks to deter Taiwan from declaring independence (and perhaps the U.S. from supporting it), and use military threats toward this end, but not compel unification by force. Military power and interdependence are part of the equation, but they are not the core of the policy that China is now pursuing.” In Fravel’s view, not only are the costs of invading Taiwan high, it’s not Beijing’s “preferred approach for achieving unification.” After all, Fravel notes, “the people of Taiwan are described as ‘compatriots’ and not enemies.”
The U.S. can play a useful role in maintaining the ambiguous status quo. Since 1979, the U.S. has adhered to a “one China” policy, which views Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China. The U.S. would do well to make clear that this policy remains in place, while at the same time maintaining its position of “strategic ambiguity” and discouraging any provocative moves by Taiwan toward independence.
But above all, the Biden administration needs to ignore the alarmist rhetoric of those warning that a Chinese invasion is imminent or even reading too much into China’s provocations. Even if it wanted to, China is not about to invade Taiwan.